On Monday, to help me write a post for my ExtranetEvolution.com blog, I went to Brentford in west London to interview people from collaboration software developer Sword CTSpace. During the meeting, they described how they had started to use an online platform to manage communications with some of their users – a platform that was actually publicly launched that day.
I subsequently received an invitation to the join its Engineering Collaboration Community (plus a news release; PDF here), and, after registering on Tuesday, have finally got round to exploring it and comparing it with other online networks that I know.
According to the news release, Sword CTSpace’s new online community:
“allows those involved in developing, implementing or working with engineering and construction collaboration technologies to report news, share and debate ideas and to promote the benefits of collaboration solutions. People from the engineering and construction sector and related industries will be able to view and participate in discussions. Conversely, engineering and construction collaboration technology developers will be able to draw attention to themselves and their industries and interact with potential clients.”
It has laudibly altruistic ambitions, then, though I expect cynics will suggest that it is mainly about promoting Sword CTSpace (there are, indeed, several small links to the promoting company on the home page, and the background image is one also used on the company’s website).
When I first visited it, I found myself in a French language version, and it took me a while to notice the small flag icons at the top left-hand corner indicating that it was also available in English and German. However, once I’d negotiated that little problem, registration was straightforward (incorporating an email confirmation), as was completing my user profile.
At first glance, the site – “powered by Slideo | Brainsonic” – looks to be a collection of videos. Helpfully, the featured video was a three-minute tutorial about the site (though the French accent was occasionally a little difficult); while watching this, I quickly found the main site features. At the time of writing, the site features around 30 videos and a couple of website links (as a test, I added a link to my ExtranetEvolution blog and it worked well; users can also post slideshows, photos, blog posts or embed code), and users can rate the content or add comments. An RSS feed is available for those who use a feed-reader to monitor updates, etc, and posted content can be bookmarked or shared via Delicious, Digg, StumbleUpon, Google, Facebook, Technorati and Twitter (though the Twit-This widget just sent an anonymous URL, not the message I tried to send). LinkedIn was not included in the sharing links, though.
So far, the site has attracted just over 40 users, only a few of whom have added photos to their profile or posted anything, so there is little online conversation taking place. The language barrier may also be a factor. While you can select which language the website is rendered in, the video content, for example, will remain in its original form (I inadvertently started viewing a video of someone interviewed in French – the tutorial said subtitles are planned for a future release). Given that the community only launched three days ago, though, it will take time for it to build up a network of regular users and for the site’s managers to react to feedback.
When I was working for one of Sword CTSpace’s competitors, I was involved in an industry trade association, the Network of Construction Collaboration Technology Providers (NCCTP). Despite its name (coined in 2003), it was not some kind of social network. Its main role was to provide a vendor-neutral, collective voice for the half dozen or so leading vendors in the space, creating a website and organising conferences and research projects designed to promote the technology platforms to the architecture, engineering, construction (AEC) and property customers. I think, if it had been promoted by the NCCTP, the Engineering Collaboration Community would have been a great way to build up interest in the technologies and create interaction among users, vendors, students, academics and other stakeholders. The potential is great – several vendors claim in excess of 100,000 registered users.
However, as it is a project unilaterally initiated by a vendor, will it achieve the levels of interest and positive interaction that Sword CTSpace hopes for? Rival vendors may be reluctant to contribute to the site, maybe preferring to cultivate their own user bases. UK competitor Asite, for example, launched its own community almost a year ago (see Asite community: the first 100 days) while Bentley has had its own communities for even longer.
There are also various websites and LinkedIn communities focused on topics like collaboration (Constructing Excellence’s Collaborative Working Champions, for instance), on Building Information Modelling, and on technology-related issues such as interoperability (eg: BuildingSMART), plus construction software bloggers like me, so there will already be some overlap with the Engineering Collaboration Community’s areas of interest.
There is also the challenge of marketing the site. Creating the community and seeding it with content is only the start of the challenge. The promoters will need to raise awareness of the site and encourage lots of user registrations (approaches to some of the sites already mentioned could be an option of course). Even then, getting enough people to post content to share with others, to revisit the site, and to recommend it to friends and colleagues will still be difficult – many people (and perhaps even more so in the construction sector?) tend just to ‘lurk’ in online communities, not contributing content or even posting comments or ratings, so the ‘viral marketing’ effect will take even longer.
I also have reservations about over-reliance on video. This can be bandwidth-hungry (some organisations block YouTube purely for this reason); some users can be reluctant to watch time-consuming video content at their desk, preferring to view other content – instead of watching an entire clip through to its conclusion, it can often be quicker to scan a blog post, for example.
But it’s early days. I will continue to monitor the site, and – just as I did with Asite’s community venture – perhaps I will re-assess its achievements and its potential in a few months’ time.